The bills are in response to widespread protests and calls to “defund the police” last year.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a slate of legislation Tuesday that targets protesters and restricts cities’ abilities to reduce police budgets.
In a ceremony attended by state law enforcement associations and bill authors, Abbott signed four Republican-backed bills aimed at widespread protests over police killings of Black and Hispanic Americans and calls to reduce spending on law enforcement.
House Bill 9, a priority bill for the lower chamber, requires jail time for people who knowingly block emergency vehicles or hospital entrances after a California incident last September where the sheriff’s department said protesters blocked a police car with two injured officers from entering a hospital.
Similarly, House Bill 2366 makes it a felony to use fireworks to interfere with official police activity or use a laser pointer to cause bodily injury to an officer. Prior to the bill, using a laser pointer was only a misdemeanor offense.
Critics have decried both bills as overly punitive, while Abbott and other supporters have called them necessary to keep law enforcement safe.
The other bills create two new barriers to big cities that wish to reduce their law enforcement budgets. Abbott called police budget reductions “downright dangerous” and a “reckless decision” in a press release after signing the legislation.
Though calls to “defund the police” can mean several things, it usually includes reallocating money to other social services or investing in alternative public safety programs.
Last August, the Austin City Council voted to cut and reallocate a third of their police department’s then-$434 million budget. Some of the money was redirected to violence prevention and food access programs, while other funds were reduced so duties like forensic sciences and victims’ services could be moved to other departments.
Abbott criticized the decision, saying at the time that it “paves the way for lawlessness.”
Under House Bill 1900, if a municipality with a population over 250,000 reduces its law enforcement budget, the state would deduct money from its sales tax and ban the city from increasing property taxes or utility fees. Any areas annexed within the last 30 years could vote to deannex, and the municipality would be banned from annexing any further areas.
Senate Bill 23 applies to counties with a population over 1 million, requiring them to hold elections before reducing or reallocating their law enforcement budgets. Counties that do so without voter approval would have their property tax revenue frozen.
Both bills make exceptions for budget reductions in the face of disaster declarations, while HB 1900 also exempts municipalities that only reduce their law enforcement budgets at the same percentage that they reduce their overall budget.
Photo: The Austin Police Department building with the Austin skyline in the background on March 22, 2021. Over the summer, the City Council voted to reduce and reallocate their police budget, leading to backlash.
Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune
BY MEGAN MUNCE with Texas Tribune.